Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Comments of Tony Heeson - Chair of the NAS' management Committee

Those of you who receive copies of “Allotment and Leisure Gardener” the National’s quarterly magazine may have seen the Chairman’s Comments section in issue 2 2016 (page 5). There were certain elements in that piece that seem to have relevance to the situation here in Bolton.

We reproduce it below, with some of our comments in italics, the National’s Management Committee Chairman – Tony Heeson wrote:-

Unfortunately, we are still hearing of local authorities that are attempting to make their allotment ‘Service’ cost neutral. This is essentially the case in Bolton with its ‘balanced budget’ which equates spending to the amount brought in in rents. Bolton would argue that the balance is only on ‘direct costs’ and that the (unquantified) costs of administrative and clerical time represent a subsidy. Certain of our members have disputed this, perhaps there is a case for a Freedom of Information Request to gain more information?

The usual way is to hike the rents up by ridiculous amounts (this is not the case in Bolton where rent increases have been kept in line with inflation. The National’s recent Survey suggest that Bolton’s rents are on the cusp between the top of the lower block of 59% (£20-£50 p.a.) and the bottom of the second lowest block of 16% (£50-£80 p.a.) ) or encourage sites to become self-managed or under devolved management (OMAs may loosely fit under devolved management) depending on the politics or fashion of the moment; all attempts to reduce the costs to the LA. Personally I am a big believer in self-management, but I have been around long enough to know that it is not a panacea and is not suitable for all occasions and situations.

We are now hearing of local authorities that are looking to commercial companies, although if the authority cannot run it at a small costs to the ratepayers, I don’t see how a commercial enterprise that by its very nature, has to make a profit, can hope to provide such a service. Others have reportedly asked voluntary organisations such as community groups to undertake the work. Have they the ability and can volunteers provide the amount of effort to run a number of sites that could encompass hundreds of plots, or do they think it will be easy and that profits they make from the rents will enrich their coffers? Are they aware of statutory and temporary sites? Do they know of the many acts concerning allotments and where are they going to get such advice when it is needed? Are they in fact capable of the day-to-day management of such an enterprise? Self-management by allotment federations (for example) has been seen to work successfully, (in Bolton this would mean abas) but others including voluntary groups have failed. Are the local authorities aware that as Landlord Paramount they cannot absolve their responsibilities along with the lease? If the new landlord fails or other such problems occur then the LA still has to pick up the pieces. They should do, as has already happened, and it could be at a very high cost.

We have had assurances from the Council that ‘the Allotment Service’ is not on any current agenda for major restructuring, the basic argument seems to be that costs have been cut to the bone and the likely return to the Council from further action would have negligible effect. This is in a way reassuring but it has meant that (for example) the idea of taking allotment site self-management to the Bolton Innovation Fund was deemed a non-starter (no savings to the Council to be demonstrated). In the past there have been unsubstantiated rumours about transfer to Bolton-at-Home or the Lancashire Wildlife Trust but that is all it has been, rumours.

The Abas Committee’s views on self-management echo the National Chair’s, in principle we find it attractive, in practice the problems loom very large, and we are currently supporting the Council’s middle way (OMAs).

The Chair of the National’s Management Committee’s piece raises a number of points and a number of fears (without it must be said proposing any solutions or ways forward). How do members feel about what’s being said? Let us know.

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